A brief history of pancho Barnes
and the Happy Bottom Riding Club
“When you have a choice, choose happy.” -Pancho Barnes
Born as Florence Leontine Lowe, “Pancho” Barnes was a force of nature, a woman who lived a big, messy, colorful, unconventional life. She ran through three fortunes, four husbands, and countless lovers. She outflew Amelia Earhart, outsmarted Howard Hughes, outdrank the Mexican Army, and out- maneuvered the U.S. government. Hers is a story of a high-spirited, headstrong woman who was proud of her successes, unabashed by her failures, and the architect of her own legend.
Pancho was a California heiress who inherited a love of flying from her grandfather, a pioneer balloonist in the Civil War. A more unlikely minister's wife could hardly be imagined. Yet Florence Lowe Barnes (1901-74) was in fact married to an Episcopalian rector when she began training horses and flying stunt planes for Hollywood studios. As it turned out, however, the hard-drinking, hard-living, primarily male camaraderie she found there suited her far better than the well-mannered lifestyle of her affluent parents and undersexed husband. Faced with a future of domesticity and upper-crust pretensions, she ran away from her responsibilities as wife and mother to create her own life. She cruised South America. She trekked through Mexico astride a burro. She acquired her nickname during a roistering 1927 trip to Mexico, and "Pancho" Barnes became legendary as a pioneering female pilot and a world-class party thrower with lovers to spare. (She was no beauty, but many men found Pancho's gusto and humor irresistible.) In the late 1920s, she took to the skies, one of a handful of female pilots. She was a barnstormer, a racer, a cross-country flier, and a Hollywood stunt pilot. She was, for a time, "the fastest woman on earth," flying the fastest civilian airplane in the world, a woman who didn't play by women's rules, a woman of large appetites--emotional, financial, and sexual--who called herself "the greatest conversation piece that ever existed.” She lived like she flew--fast and dangerous.
In the mid-'30s, past her prime as a pilot and looking for a business to support her free-spending ways, she set up as a Mojave Desert rancher near a tiny encampment of the Army Air Corps. She ran a wild and wildly successful desert watering hole known as the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the raucous bar and grill depicted in The Right Stuff. Military and test pilots like Chuck Yeager flocked to Pancho's place--whether it was called Rancho Oro Verde, Pancho's Fly-Inn, or the Happy Bottom Riding Club--to savor her openhanded hospitality with food and booze, and to enjoy earthy stories about her past.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club was Pancho Barnes most famous and successful creation. Club members could fly in to Pancho's FAA approved airport, attend rodeos at her championship rodeo stadium, ride horses from her well-stocked horse corral, dance in her dance hall, have drinks at her bar, eat the best steak of their life in her restaurant, swim in her large circular pool, and then decide to do it all again the next day by checking into her hotel. Additionally, on her 380 acre ranch, she had a thriving dairy, cattle and hog business. During the height of the Happy Bottom Riding Club's success, there were over 9,000 members worldwide. You never knew who would show up at the Club for a steak dinner, sit in with the jazz combo, or sing with the other customers at the piano bar. It was not unusual to find heads of state, high ranking military, actors, actresses, famous writers and artists, and perhaps even your next door neighbor at Pancho's bar and restaurant. At Pancho's, everyone who liked to enjoy life, laugh and have a good time was welcomed. Pancho was fond of saying, "When you have a choice choose happy!" Well, when you went through the door of her club, it was quite clear that you had chosen the happy path for the evening!
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